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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Nicholas Goldberg

Jan. 6? Climate change? War in Europe? The voters have other things on their minds

The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol is not a top-tier issue for voters. According to my colleague Melanie Mason in The Times, there is little sign that it — or the precarious condition of American democracy it has come to symbolize — will draw many people to the polls in November or determine a swing voter's choices.

Similarly, climate change, the looming catastrophe that scientists say will upend our lives in the years ahead, ranks 24th on a list of 29 issues that voters say they'll think about when deciding whom to vote for in the upcoming midterms, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

So how about the war in Ukraine, which could reshape the map of Europe and even escalate into a nuclear conflict? That's not of enormous concern to American voters either. Nor is the U.S. relationship with China, despite its obvious ramifications for long-term global peace and prosperity.

No, Americans these days — and particularly the swing voters who are being watched and courted so assiduously — are underwhelmed by abstract ideas, faraway crises or problems scheduled to materialize sometime in the future.

With some exceptions, they're focused on the here and now. Pocketbook issues. Quality-of-life issues. Better schools. Safer streets. The cost of living.

"These voters tend to look at their vote through the prism of the pain they want relief from," Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant and co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, said in an interview. "That's the cost of gas and groceries, or getting a job, or traffic or homelessness. The more macro issues — like what the planet will be like in 40 years — are not the ones that make voters passionate."

And that's understandable, isn't it? Most people don't have, or don't feel they have, the leeway in their lives to worry about other Americans' problems, or tomorrow's dangers or crises in distant countries that affect distant people. Paying the bills, staying safe, making sure the kids are OK — these are the humdrum, day-to-day challenges most people want to see addressed.

That's why pollster Mark Penn has said that candidates shouldn't be droning on about Trump and the threat to democracy he poses, but should be "connecting to voters' immediate needs and anxieties."

As the campaign for control of the U.S. House and Senate enters its final weeks, top issues for voters, according to the Pew Research Center, include the economy, gun policy, violent crime and healthcare.

Parochial thinking is inevitable. But it may not be sufficient, especially at a troubled moment in history, when fundamental challenges call for broader thinking than simply, "What'll this cost me?"

Resurgent Trumpism is a moral, practical and existential threat facing Americans. The only other problem as pressing is climate change, which the world has been recklessly ignoring for decades.

Voters should be leaping from their seats and rushing to the polls to vote in November on these enormously consequential subjects.

But they don't appear to be.

"Look, I'd love it if voters were well-informed and voted the national interest, but the history of democracy is they pretty much vote their own interest or their perceived interest," said Murphy.

And those are the Americans who vote! Many don't even bother. Despite record turnout in 2020, in what was probably the most important presidential election of my lifetime, 80 million eligible voters didn't trouble themselves to turn out, thanks to apathy, cynicism and alienation from the political system.

Of course there are a few factors that could shake up the conventional wisdom this year. One wild card is abortion. Many observers believe the Supreme Court's June decision reversing Roe vs. Wade after nearly 50 years will animate young voters and female voters who don't usually make it to the polls. We'll see.

Another is gun violence, for obvious reasons. It ranks high among the issues voters say they care about.

And some still believe the threat to U.S. electoral integrity could have an effect; it shows up as significant in some polling. But I'm skeptical.

Many political analysts expect a relatively high turnout for a midterm election year.

I'm a Democrat and a pragmatist. As far as I'm concerned, Democratic politicians should talk on the campaign trail about whatever issues are on the minds of the voters they need.

If they have to put aside Russia, China and even the warming of the Earth to focus on inflation, taxes and traffic jams, so be it. If the price of defeating Trumpism and its adherents is pretending the big issue is not Trump, that's OK too.

I get it. People have bills to pay and lives to live. But don't be fooled. The big threats — especially to American democracy and to the fate of the planet — may seem abstract but they matter more than ever.


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